Editorial: Mount Tom coal-fired power plant signs off

Last modified: Friday, June 06, 2014
Competition within the energy industry this week brought a headline environmentalists wanted for years: The coal-fired Mount Tom plant is no longer producing electricity and emitting carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. At least in one respect, this market is self-cleaning.

One can’t help but feel brief sympathy for an energy behemoth, GDF Suez Energy of North America, for having recently invested more than $50 million in anti-pollution upgrades at the Holyoke facility. And yet, the 146-megawatt plant is a speck on GDF Suez’s global map. The costs of closing will hardly register on its balance sheet.

That’s not true for 28 employees. Though all will be paid until Oct. 1 and be eligible for severance packages, they lose well-paid work. The company is offering to connect them with opportunities at other GDF Suez sites, but since many are near retirement age, Mount Tom may be their last hurrah. They clocked in for hands-on jobs that enable families to live middle-class lives — and that’s more and more difficult in America today.

Chalk this job loss up to the peril of working in an industry stuck between competition from cheap natural gas and concern about global warming.

A company spokeswoman says it is a coincidence that workers got the news on the day the Environmental Protection Agency outlined rules that will require states to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions from plants like this. The timing may be coincidental, but the days have been numbered for coal-fired plants since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.

Even with that law in place, owners of the Mount Tom plant made money for decades while spewing toxins into the air and water. The plant, located yards from the Northampton line, amassed a record of environmental degradation. Even after it added equipment to reduce emissions, the plant continued to dirty the Valley. In 2011, after the investment in pollution controls, GDF Suez agreed to pay penalties for thousands of Clean Air Act violations from 2005 to 2010.

It remains to be seen whether the company will seek a new way to generate electricity in Holyoke. As it ponders the 80-acre site’s future, GDF Suez will have to reckon with environmental damage there and shoulder cleanup costs under the watch of state and federal regulators.

Here in Massachusetts, we’re ahead in the carbon dioxide fight. The state is part of a regional compact to lower greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program and is already meeting expectations laid out in the EPA’s new rules.

While Mount Tom does not leave a significant gap in the region’s power capacity, it is worth considering what its demise means. Mount Tom was able to produce enough electricity to supply 120,000 homes. To the north, another generator, Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, will go off-line this year, pulling 620 megawatts of capacity off the grid.

Still, New England does not face an electricity shortage. While the grid stands to lose 2,300 megawatts from coal-fired plants, facilities fueled by natural gas are gaining, according to figures from ISO-New England. Coal made up 7 percent of the grid’s capacity last year, compared to 12 percent in 2000. In that time, the share of electricity produced by natural gas jumped from 18 to 43 percent.

As all this is happening, ISO reports it is tracking wind power proposals that would add 2,000 megawatts of capacity, along with natural gas-fired generation that would bring 4,340 megawatts — which together would be nearly nine times the capacity of Mount Tom and Vermont Yankee together.

Small players will have an impact as well. The state’s Clean Energy Center continues to push small-scale solar photovoltaic power production. It will take a lot of rooftop panels to replace what Mount Tom generated, but this is what’s happening. And those panels will not pollute our air and water.